Monday, May 31, 2010

Lovesick and Dumbfounded

“(The Lord) takes great delight in you…” (Zephaniah 3:17).

 With apologies to Zephaniah the prophet and my Hebrew professors, I offer this translation:

The Lord, your God is with you—
your hero, mighty to deliver!
He takes great delight in you.
He is speechless with love for you.
Every time he thinks of you he breaks into joyful song!  (Zephaniah 3:17)

I’m awed by the notion that God takes great delight in me, that he breaks into song each time he thinks of my name. But it’s the phrase I render, “He is speechless with love” that dumbfounds me.

The verse is usually translated, “He will be quiet in his love,” or in some translations, “He will quiet you with his love.” But the Hebrew verb does not suggest tranquility. It means, “to be dumb,” or “to be speechless.”[1] And since the verb is in parallel with other verbs that describe God’s emotions (“He takes great delight,” and “He breaks into joyful song”) it must point to what he himself feels.

Could the analogue be a lovesick swain, thunderstruck with love for his beloved, so overcome with affection that he is tongue–tied?  Is God, in some inexplicable, anthropopathic way, “struck dumb” with love each time he thinks of me? If so, to be loved like this is, in turn, to be rendered speechless.

Who is it that God so loves? One who is good and true and breathtakingly beautiful? No. One who is unholy and unsightly, but who “takes refuge in the name of the Lord” (Zephaniah 3:12).


[1] Jenni-Westerman, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Papa Didn’t Say “Oh.”

“The Lord is gracious and full of compassion…” (Psalm 145:8)

I have a friend who was working in his home office one evening, trying to get some essential paperwork done. His little girl, who was about four years old at the time, was playing around his desk, puttering about, moving objects here and there, pulling out drawers and making a good deal of noise.

My friend endured the distraction with stoic patience until the child slammed a drawer on one of her fingers and screamed in pain. “That’s it!” he reacted in exasperation, as he escorted her out of the room and shut the door.

Later, her mother found the child weeping in her bedroom and tried to comfort her. “Does your finger still hurt?” she asked. “No,” the little girl sniffled.  “Then why are you crying?” her mother asked. “’Cause,” she wailed,  “when I pinched my finger, Papa didn’t say, ‘Oh!’”

Sometimes that’s all we need, isn’t it? Someone who cares and who will respond with kindness and compassion. Someone who will just say, “Oh!”

There is indeed One who knows our deepest sorrows, for he was made like us in all respects apart from sin. He is the “fellow–feeling human God,” George MacDonald said, who has suffered as we have suffered and who understands like no other. He is full of compassion and comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3,4).

He waits to be gracious.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Jacob was one of those unfortunates, saddled from birth with a difficult disposition. He was born gripping his twin brother’s heel, trying to tripping him up and get ahead. That was the trajectory of his life—wheeling, dealing, double–dealing, grasping, grabbing, jerking people around in order to gain selfish advantage. Yet God was not ashamed to be called “the God of Jacob,” a phrase that occurs several times in the Bible.

Jacob is reminiscent of those who come into life with a pervasive tendency to go wrong, who live in hereditary hells—saddled from birth with insecurities, insanities and sinful predilections; who are addicted to food, sex, alcohol, drugs, spending, gambling or work; who have disturbed and difficult personalities; who, as C. S. Lewis once put it, have a “hard machine to drive.”       

But no matter. God loved Jacob. As the man himself put it, “God has been my shepherd all my life.”

God knows all our weary stories and all the sources and possibilities of evil in our natures. He knows the patent facts of our lives and the latent forces—the hurt and the heartbreak that others cannot see and which cannot be explained, even to our closest friends. He’s aware of the reasons for our moodiness, our temper tantrums, our selfish indulgences. Others may be put off by our personalities, but God never turns away. He sees beyond the prickliness to the broken heart. His understanding is infinite.

It’s a matter of indifference to him how damaged we are or how far wrong we’ve gone. Our vileness does not alter his character. He is eternal love—“the same yesterday, today, forever.” We may not be what he wants us to be, but we are not unwanted. If we will have him, he will be our shepherd.

Fredrick Buechner marvels at the folly of God to welcome “lamebrains and misfits and nit-pickers and holier–than–thous and stuffed shirts and odd ducks and egomaniacs and milquetoasts and closet sensualists,” but that’s the way he is. Whatever we are, wherever we are, his heart is open to us; “Love surrounds us, seeking the smallest crack by which it may rush in.”

Isn’t it odd
That a being like God
Who sees the facade
Still loves the clod
That He made out of sod?
Now isn’t that odd?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Good Old Days

I remember the days of old…” (Psalm 143:5).

Years ago I came across a scrap of graffiti scrawled on a college classroom wall: “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”—a reminder that our memories may be excessively euphoric. Yet, we older folks still allow our minds to run backward through the years and yearn for that better time and place—the “good old days.”

For some, these reveries bring delight and thanksgiving. For others the past evokes only bitter memories. Deep in the night they ponder their own disillusionments, failures and fantasies, and think of the cruel hand that life has dealt them. They brood over what went before and think about “what if,” and “what might have been.”

It’s better to  remember the past, as David did, and contemplate the good that God has done, to “meditate on all (his) works; to muse on the work of (his) hands” (Psalm 143:5). [1]    We should call to mind the loving kindness of the Lord, name his blessings through the years and count them one by one. These are the memories that foster the highest good: They evoke a deep longing for more of God and more of his tender care.[2] They take us out of the past and into that secret place of familiarity and fellowship with our Lord.

I heard a story recently about an elderly woman who would sit in silence for hours in her rocking chair, hands folded in her lap, eyes gazing off into the far distance. One day her daughter asked her “Mother, what do you think about when you sit there so quietly?” “That, my dear,” her mother replied softly, with a twinkle in her eye, “is between Jesus and me.”

Oh, that our memories and meditations would so draw us into his presence!


[1] The basic meaning of this Hebrew verb translated “muse” seems to be “to turn over and over in one’s mind.”
[2] “I stretch out my hands to you; my soul is like parched earth with respect to you.” —Psalm 143:6

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I Have a Dream

“Delight yourself also in the Lord, And He will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalms 37:4).

Forty years ago I read J.R.R. Tolkien's short story, "Leaf By Niggle" and was strangely moved by it, though at first I didn't know why. I've since read it a half-dozen times or more and each time have experienced a sudden awareness of truth, especially now that I'm much closer to my own “long journey.”

In the story, an artist named Niggle, longs to finish an enormous canvas of a great Tree in the middle of a forest. He invests each leaf of his Tree with obsessive attention to detail, making every one uniquely beautiful. Niggle ends up discarding all his other artworks, or tacks them onto the main canvas, which becomes a single embodiment of his dream—a dream he longs to complete before he takes his “long journey.”

But, despite Niggle’s efforts to accomplish the task, his crippled neighbor, Parish—who calls on him for help at the most inopportune times— endlessly interrupts him. At one point Niggle has to sacrifice part of his canvas to patch Parish’s leaking roof and this, along with other distractions, frustrates his great work—until he takes his long journey and reaches his final destination. There “before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. ‘It's a gift!’ he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally.” [1]

In the end Niggle is rewarded with the realization (the making-real) of his great dream,[2]  a far better thing than the flawed and incomplete form of his own desires.

Perhaps you too have a wondrous dream—a holy task to be completed before you take your long journey—but interruptions and distractions continually frustrate you. Be encouraged. “The Lord will perfect that which concerns (you)” (Psalm 138:8). Delight yourself in the Lord this day and he, in good time, will “make real” your desire—in this life, perhaps, or surely in the life to come, where all our dreams come true.


[1]The story is largely autobiographical, reflecting Tolkien's absorption with finishing TLOR in the midst of constant interruption. In a letter to a friend he wrote: "I should say that, in addition to my tree-love—the story was originally called "The Tree"—it arose from my own pre-occupation with The Lord of the Rings, the knowledge that it would be finished in great detail or not at all, and the fear (near certainty) that it would be 'not at all.'"

[2] Or, if you prefer, Niggle's Tree was ultimate reality and always existed; he simply reflected it in his dream.

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